One Devious Microtransaction

The makers of the new mobile game Bit City have already tweaked one of their game's microtransactions, just days after launch. I guess I wasn't the only one who thought it was messed up, even by microtransaction standards.

Bit City is a cross between Sim City and clicker games like Cookie Clicker. You manage a city, mostly by tapping around on your screen. It's fun enough, though it's light on strategy, and I've been having a good time with it during my recent new-kid-driven embrace of phone games. As with most clicker games, you spend a lot of time in Bit City watching numbers tick up, earning more in-game cash so that you can develop more buildings so that you get more tax revenue so you can build more stuff to in turn get more revenue. It's an addictive loop.

The game has a micro-transaction involving a "Pension Pig" that costs $4.49 and seems to be designed to mess with your mind. For that low, low price you can crack open a piggy bank and get the "bux" inside it. You want this, because "bux" allow you to permanently set stat-boosting policies for your cities and can buy you any one of an elite set of buildings that make your city thrive.

You can earn bux by playing, mostly by completing in-game challenges or tapping on cars in the city streets that sometimes generate bux on their roofs. But cracking that piggy bank would also be a great way to get bux.

The Pension Pig is designed around two things:

  1. The number of bux in the Pension Pig increases the more you perform meaningful in-game actions like upgrading your city.
  2. You get all the Bux in the pig when you crack it, but then you have to pay $4.49 again the next time the bux build up in the pig and you want to crack it again.

So. From the moment you learn about the Pension Pig, the question becomes: How long will you play Bit City and add bux to that pig before you'll pay $4.49 to access them? That's the mind game.

Really, how badly and how quickly do I want to earn the 1250 bux needed to build mini golf courses in my city? Hell, how badly do I need the 274 needed to start unlocking the "Smart Grid" perk to increase each building's payout? Or the 78 needed to increase "bank savings time"? I really want more bux!

I feel like I got burned by the Pension Pig. I paid $4.49 to open it pretty early on as a way to give money to the developers who made Bit City. It was only later that I realised I would have gotten more bux for my bucks if I'd just waited. I got very little for my money because hadn't realised that if I ever wanted to access the pig again, I'd have to pay $4.49 again.

Most microtransactions in free-to-play games like Bit City are psychological tests. You've downloaded the game and now are playing the meta-game of seeing how much you can enjoy it without paying for anything. Like me, you might be OK paying a microtransaction here or there to pay the developers for their work, but the microtransaction systems usually involve testing how much you value your time versus your money. Will you wait and play a game like Bit City to slowly earn bux by completing quests? Or will you buckle and just crack that pig?

The Bit City Pension Pig is a particularly devious setup not just because it's constantly testing whether you've decided it's worth it to pay, but because it's almost always a bad deal. Check out the in-game store and it's plain as day. Why would I pay $4.49 to get the 422 bux I've accrued in the pig after a couple of half-hour sessions of play when I could just pay $7.99 to get 3500? Of course, it doesn't stop there. Why pay $7.99 for 3500 when $14.99 will net 10,000? And so on.

Of course the Pension Pig could be the most lucrative option of all if only it had a few thousand more bux in it, but it will only have a few thousand more bux in it if I keep playing the game. And the longer I play the game, the longer I'll wonder if I should just buckle and go for the more straightforward $7.99 or $14.99 transactions instead.

And then there's the additional wrinkle that you can pay for the pig again and again. So if you give in too soon this time, well, maybe you'll be able to hold out longer and let the pig fatten more before paying the $4.49 next time. The more I play, the more the Pension Pig gets me thinking less like a gamer and more like a gambler.

Yesterday, Bit City got an update. In the patch notes, they specified that they have "clarified Pension Pig in the shop" and made it so "the Pension Pig now grows faster!" When you look at the Pension Pig in the shop, here's what you'll see:

It says quite clearly, "Pay each time opened," as opposed to just, "resets when opened," which is what it used to say. It's still a mind game, but at least they're being clearer about it.


    Screw that. For that amount of money I'd probably rather just buy a decent mobile game outright and never have it hassle me for a single microtransaction.

    Various companies have been doing this for years. There's a special term for it but I cant put my finger on it.
    The idea is to make a low end deal that most consumers would normally go for seem unappealing. That maybe by having a plan that offers slightly more to kick you up to the next price bracket, even though you might not need it or even benefit from it at all.

    same thing in egg inc. I cracked mine at 24,000 golden eggs!
    but I have a Telstra carrier bill thing set up that takes it out of the credit on the phone. so along as i am topping up every month i never really spend anything extra.

    These are hardy 'games'. They're more like glorified slot machines. Developers of such mindless crap don't deserve your money.

      I consider them to be social experiments - how much money can we screw out of people while delivering zero meaningful content?

    This is not new, Egg, INC was the first to do it from what i can see. This game seems to be emulating Egg, INC which is the norm for free apps anyway.

    This is exactly why I stop playing mobile games years ago. I'd rather play a game on a 3DS (now a Switch).

    There are a couple different types of microtransaction, I've noticed.

    The first is the worst and most insidious. Temporary/throw-away/consumable microtransactions. Speed-ups, boosts, one-time odds-adjusters. Things designed to be paid for repeatedly. These are an advanced form of cancer and society needs to work on a cure.

    The second are far more benign - one-time upgrades, permanent unlocks. At their most innocuous, they can also be earned with in-game currency earned through in-game actions and simply acquired earlier/easier with cash, but at their worst, they're a special permanent bonus as thanks for paying. I really think either is just fine. Especially given that most games go F2P in order to get people to give the thing a shot. Games with actual price tags on them apparently lock out millions of users from even trying them, even if they're only two bucks.

    The Pension Egg is intended for players who don't go for micro-transactions at all. It's intended for the approx 97.8% of the player base, in other words.
    Each and every one of those non-paying players have a threshold at which they will give in, and decide to break their Pension Pig, as its in-game value continues to rise. Without the Pig, Bit City would never generate any revenue from them; with the Pig, it will (and also probably convert a fair few to micro-transactions).

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